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Sharks have been a staple of pop culture for decades, usually playing the villain in films like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows and about a trillion others of varying quality. Video games have also featured sharks, but mainly as an obstacle to either destroy or simply avoid getting eaten by. What we’re saying is, there’s no respect, no respect for a shark. That all changes with Maneater, a game where the player is finally put into the cartilaginous skeleton of those toothy denizens of the sea, and while it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind on the whole shark issue, it’s an engaging splash in the water, albeit a shallow one.

Maneater opens with a stellar introduction, as you play a fully grown bull shark that menaces a beach of extremely delicious humans. However, before you can unleash total mayhem, Cajun shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc lobs up, filming his reality TV show Maneater, captures you and rips the baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) from your belly. As your mum brutally carks it, you – now playing the wee freshly born shark – manage to bite off Pete’s hand and escape into the water. This opening has the dual purpose of setting up the game’s revenge narrative and showing you how much arse a fully powered up shark can kick. Because at the beginning of the game proper, your shark is a pissweak little tacker who can be eaten by almost anything.

Gameplay wise, Maneater is about getting bigger, stronger and more deadly. A frequently hilarious voice over by Chris Parnell (Archer, Rick and Morty) guides you through the game’s various zones as you chomp other creatures (both animal and human), gain powers, unlock shortcuts and fight bosses. It’s a simple, RPG-light experience that does become a little repetitive over time, but taken in small (ahem) bite-sized chunks can be goofily enjoyable. The graphics are solid, the animation’s a little clunky and the controls are a tad simplistic, and yet for all of that, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, if you’re not feeling too demanding.

Maneater’s biggest strength is the change of perspective, playing as a shark is such a wonderful novelty that most gamers will be able to overlook the title’s shortcomings. It’s rough around the edges, its gameplay stops evolving about a third of the way in, and yet for all of that, Maneater is frequently a hoot. A slightly trashy B-grade proposition, fans of splattery black humour will likely find this to be… a gill-ty pleasure.

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Jamie Kennedy: Stoopid Smart

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For many, Jamie Kennedy will be known as Randy Meeks, the horror movie rule touting nerd of the Scream franchise. In his new stand up special, Stoopid Smart, however, he’s introduced to the stage as the star of Tremors 6. Yep, even he’s surprised there’s a sixth Tremors movie and admits that he’s negotiating to be in part 7. This self-effacing tone appears to be the crux of Stoopid Smart; an acknowledgement of Jamie’s place in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Filmed in the back of a bowling alley, in front an intimate crowd, Kennedy sighs, ‘Career’s going well.’ Obviously, it’s all part of the act, with Kennedy playing up to the label of a ‘washed up’ actor chomping at the bit to get a part in a seemingly never-ending horror franchise. In a way, Stoopid Smart could be the pilot to a show starring Kennedy as Jamie, a heightened version of himself. Hey, it didn’t stop Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Andrew Dice Clay or Rob Schneider.

This fatty vein of self-deprecation runs throughout the 60 minute gig, with Kennedy talking about lost auditions, not being recognised (he gets Alexa to read out his Wikipedia page on dates) and desperately trying to get women to sleep with him. And on that last point, boy, does he go strong.

Not every routine needs to reach the heights of George Carlin, Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks. However, despite amusing bits about folk singers getting involved in gangland fights and a spot-on Matthew McConaughey impression, Kennedy seems inordinately hung up on getting women into bed. He likes to get them full of food, he jokes, so that they can’t run away. Whilst the comedian admits that he also becomes bloated and tired from the ‘gluten bomb’, meaning that he falls asleep too, entrapping women for sex seems a little dated at the least.

Later on, he takes shots at broad targets such as women who nag, women who just want to be friends and how you can’t joke about anything anymore. This low hanging fruit is decidedly not fresh.

As any fan of Mrs Brown’s Boys will tell you, humour is subjective. Kennedy’s crowd are clearly appreciative of his comedic stylings, but it all just feels light on content. It would be nice to have some material that justifies the second adjective in the show’s title.

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Escape from Pretoria

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Set during the Apartheid years in South Africa, this is the incredible story of Jim Jenkins, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris; three white political prisoners who made a daring bid for freedom from the confines of a maximum security prison. What makes it all the more incredible is that it’s completely true and, to crank it up to 11, based on a book by Jenkins, written whilst he was on the run as a fugitive of the law.

Filmed in South Australia, Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber (The Dirt, Danger Close) play Jenkins and Lee respectively. In a swift but tense opening, the two men are arrested and sentenced for distributing anti-Apartheid propaganda via pamphlet bomb. It’s not so much the very small explosive device that they’ve used in public that raises the ire of the Law, but the fact that they are seen as traitors of their own race. At one point, Jenkins is described as ‘the white Mandela’ and there’s not a spot of praise in the comparison. Yes, it’s a clunky bit of dialogue, but it gets its point across.

Once inside Pretoria prison, which has a whole building dedicated to white political prisoners, Lee and Jenkins make alliances with Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who was put on trial alongside the aforementioned Mandela. Whilst Goldberg was said to have played a large part in the escape, he takes a backseat for most of the narrative. In fact, so does Jenkins and Lee’s fellow escapee, Moumbaris, who is replaced by the fictional Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter, Measure for Measure). It’s a shame that Goldberg is pushed to the margins as Leonard is, unfortunately, a facsimile of a character with neither a background nor motive.

With all the main characters having been introduced, the political potential of Escape from Pretoria buckles its safety belt with Hart’s Goldberg. This is to be a film about the escape and little else. Director Francis Annan, who co-wrote the screenplay and makes his feature length debut with Pretoria, has put together a tight little package wrapped up in nervous sweat. For example, as Jenkins fashions keys out of wood (you read that right) and tests them behind the guards’ back, we can practically taste his fear. However, we quickly catch on to the fact that the oppressive regime, identified as one overweight guard and one skinny angry man, isn’t that scary.

Elsewhere, there’s that niggling feeling that most of the characters, including Lee and Goldberg, are there simply to function as a Greek chorus to remind the audience of what a great man Jenkins is.

That aside, Radcliffe gives a strong performance as the man with a gift for wood, his accent only wobbling in times of heightened emotion. From farting corpses to men with guns drilled into their hands, it’s been enjoyable to watch that Radcliffe’s career doesn’t seem to have any discernible path and let’s hope he continues to keep us guessing.

More of a comforting afternoon watch than a taut political thriller, Escape from Pretoria is still worth digging into if only as a testament to what humankind can do when they’re forced into isolation. It feels kind of timely in a weird way.

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The Assistant

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Harvey Weinstein’s highly publicised outing and subsequent criminal conviction as a creepy, sociopathic sex predator is by no means a one-off. Weinstein’s man-child sexual urges, self-indulgent rages and spiteful petulance created an all-pervading fearful toxicity within the office culture at Miramax and subsequently, The Weinstein Company. That said, Weinstein is by no means the exception, his kind, his ilk extends back to the beginnings of the studio system in Hollywood.

The notorious Hollywood ‘Golden age’ agent Henry Willson (brought to wonderful life in Hollywood by Jim Parsons), used the same modus operandi with his roster of young men pursuing Hollywood stardom. Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue were clients, as were Lana Turner and Natalie Wood. Willson was known as a ‘casting couch agent’. Daryl Zanuck, former studio chief at Twentieth Century Fox would literally shut down his offices at 4pm for a daily half hour ‘auditioning’ of the latest young ingénue. His predatorial behaviour makes Weinstein look positively anaemic in comparison. Judy Garland spoke of MGM’s Louis B Mayer groping her as a young girl.

Hollywood has been rife with these individuals over the last century. Their brazen activities in satisfying their sexual predilections would often go hand in hand with bold, confrontational deal making. Thus, their myths as great producers would be solidified, categorising them as ‘movers and shakers’ or ‘Powerful men who shaped Hollywood’.

Australian director Kitty Green’s latest film takes a quietly observed and low-key look at the power dynamics in an unnamed film production company office, framing the story from the perspective of an underling.

Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner) is a young assistant to an unseen, unnamed Weinstein-alike (though we do hear his voice over the phone as he tears strips off her for various perceived transgressions). She begins her day pre-dawn, leaving her Astoria apartment where a driver takes her to the office. First into the building, she turns on the office lights and starts the day with the first of many menial tasks: photocopying scripts, tallying her boss’s expenses, placing water bottles in meeting rooms, receiving and sorting mail and arranging her boss’s itinerary over numerous phone calls.

Jane asks work related questions of the other two male assistants in her office, though they act entitled and indifferent. Clearly, there have been many girls in the ‘assistant’ role before her, they obviously think there will be many after her. They often punt the tasks they don’t want to deal with over to her, while they slack off.

Later in the day, a young woman appears in the office reception room, stating that Jane’s boss has given her a job as an ‘assistant’ and has flown her to New York and put her up in an expensive hotel. The young woman returns to her hotel, followed quickly by Jane’s boss. His sudden absence causes disarray in the day’s schedule. Forced to rearrange meetings and make excuses to her boss’s wife, Jane’s growing unease with this behaviour escalates.

The climatic moments of this film are simple conversations where Jane decides to act, to speak up, albeit in a quiet, reserved way (Succession’s Matthew MacFadyen is terrific as a wonderfully unhelpful HR executive).

There have been reviews of this film that see the low key, observational manner as a drawback, as if this topic demands showy fireworks and a courtroom resolution where the guts of the issue can be spilled out and picked over. But that kind of bombast and catharsis is not how life really is. It is also not how these systems persist.

The quiet power of The Assistant lies in its nuance, observing a status quo that is so clearly the result of a century of powerful gatekeepers leveraging their positions to sate their own desires. Focusing on the fragility and helplessness of someone caught in the gears of that machine is what is so compelling about Kitty Green’s soft touch with the subject matter.

It’s not that the film lacks teeth, it’s that the protagonist lacks control over her situation and her inability to help the litany of women she sees being used and abused by her boss. All Jane can do is: speak up.

Now available to rent via Foxtel On Demand. Available to Rent On Demand from 10 June via multiple platforms

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Comedy, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Though best known for playing Danny Tanner on the TV sitcom Full House and hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos (remember that one?), Bob Saget’s creative tendencies on the whole veer into far darker territory. His stand-up comedy is coarse and full of F-bombs, and he famously parodied himself to shocking effect on TV’s Entourage. Saget also has a sideline career as a director, with titles like Dirty Work with fellow comic Norm MacDonald and the full-tilt piss-take Farce Of The Penguins. Benjamin is his most ambitious film yet, and like his very career itself, it walks a fine line between sentiment and outrageous political incorrectness. Driven on by the script from Joshua Turek (making his feature debut after a host of shorts), Saget doesn’t hold back on this comedy about a bizarre case of family fracture.

When the harried, anxious Ed (Saget) discovers drug paraphernalia belonging to his quiet, near somnambulant teenage son Benjamin (Mark Burkholder), he does what any parent would do: he stages an intervention, and invites over seemingly everybody he knows. There’s his cocky brother Rick (Kevin Pollak); his best friend, also Ed (Rob Corddry); his personal assistant come lover Jeanette (Mary Lynn Rajskub); his daughter Amber (Clara Mamet) and her two boy pals; his ex-wife Marley (Peri Gilpin); and two distant relatives (Cheri Oteri, Dave Foley) who proceed to lift all of his removable possessions as soon as they arrive. Once in place, the intervention soon takes second place to the bizarre interactions between this truly strange collection of characters.

With its single location, heavy reliance on dialogue over action, and uninhibited ensemble cast, Benjamin feels curiously like an adaptation of a stage play that never was. Its insularity, however, is exploded by the inherent kookiness of the script and the inventive performances of the cast, all of whom are more than happy to “go there.” Featuring quite possibly the (intentionally) worst man-on-man fight scene ever filmed and an amusingly loose approach to subjects like drugs, cross-dressing, infidelity, and family relationships, the very funny (and often very wrong) Benjamin is another appropriately original entry in the career of Bob Saget.

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Home, Horror, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Evan (Seann William Scott) is a school counsellor, specialising in at risk teens. An upfront montage highlights the frustration and rigid routine of his job. He reaches out to his students, but they, for various reasons, can’t quite accept help. Believing that their parents lie at the heart of their problems, Evan does what any good counsellor would do and – checks notes – kills them in the dead of night.

He may have a different name and career, but Bloodline’s protagonist is essentially Dexter, the role made famous by Michael C Hall in Showtime’s hit series. Evan researches his victim’s crimes, kidnaps them and gets them to figuratively spill their guts before he literally does. At home, Evan’s wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga) is none the wiser and doesn’t question Evan’s night-time disappearances too much; just so long as he helps look after their newborn son.

Writer and director Henry Jacobson shakes things up for our sympathetic killer in the shape of Evan’s mother, Marie (Dale Dickey). Marie appears to have a strong hold over her son and is not against ignoring her daughter in law’s requests. It’s this three way dynamic that gives the film its dramatic conflict. Sort of.

Bloodline is a De Palma-esque thriller that is visually stunning to say the least; all split screens and red and blue lighting. Jacobson and his team have certainly pulled out all the stops to make a confronting and, at times, beautifully violent film. It’s just gorgeous enough to forgive the wheel spinning that comes in the second half of the film.

With Evan’s extracurricular activities looking like they’re about to be exposed, there’s never a suitable amount of tension. Additionally, whilst Marie and Lauren clearly don’t like each other, for the most part it doesn’t really go anywhere. That is until a last minute twist is all but signposted by Marie in the final sprint to the end. It’s a bit like fast food really. The ending satisfies to some extent, but you’ll likely be wanting something more.

That said, aside from its visuals and camera tricks, Bloodline does serve up a great performance by Scott. Channelling his inner Patrick Bateman – albeit a lower middle class version – the actor convincingly looks like he wants to care for you or stab you in the belly with zero remorse. Coupled with a gripping turn by Dickey, his performance suggests that everything could have worked out for Norman Bates if he just talked about his feelings once in a while.

Wearing its influences on its sleeve, Bloodline is an entertaining 90 minutes that doesn’t outstay its welcome and is a strong feature length debut for its director.

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Tammy’s Always Dying

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Felicity Huffman is an actress that has always deserved better. Though by far the most naturally gifted of the cast of the hit TV series Desperate Housewives, she reaped the least rewards, while her bravura Oscar nominated performance in the superb drama Transamerica failed to turn up any roles of equal import. Most recently, of course, she’s been getting the wrong kind of attention after serving eleven days in prison due to her involvement in the notorious college admissions scandal. Some small measure of uplift comes with the pithy new comedy drama Tammy’s Always Dying, in which Huffman does some of her best on-screen work ever. The second feature from Canadian/American actress (best known as The Pink Ranger from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) turned filmmaker Amy Jo Johnson, it’s custom built for Huffman’s earthy, anti-star stylings, and the actress nails it from start to finish.

Huffman is Tammy MacDonald, a drunken, sloppy mess who regularly winds up teetering on the edge of the same bridge in her small Canadian hometown, apparently contemplating suicide, but largely crying – making that screaming – for help and attention from her long-suffering daughter, Catherine (the magnificent Anastasia Phillips, who would’ve been an indie queen if she’d been coming up in the nineties, like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lili Taylor). But when Tammy is diagnosed with cancer, Catherine realises that her complicated relationship with her mother is even more complicated than she thought.

Boasting a wintry, bleak aesthetic mainlined straight from the seventies, and a cast of wonderfully real and imaginatively odd characters (one-time Homicide: Life On The Street star Clark Johnson really sings as the friend and owner of the most horrible on-screen watering hole seen since Barfly where Catherine works), Tammy’s Always Dying is a bruising, biting and often very funny take on the oft maligned mother/daughter movie, set in a tough, hardscrabble working class milieu not often depicted on screen. There’s no mawkishness here, with the debut feature script from talent-to-watch Joanne Sarazen happily free of manipulation and grandstanding. Coupled with the straight-from-the-battered-heart performances of Huffman and Phillips, it makes Tammy’s Always Dying a punchy, gritty experience that will poke and grab at your emotions in surprising and meaningful ways.

Tammy’s Always Dying will be available to stream from May 21 – June 3, exclusively through Classic, Lido, Cameo and Ritz Cinemas’ On Demand Streaming Service for $14.99. Click here to watch.

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The Trip to Greece

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“Where shall we go next?” “Oh, Greece is nice this time of year”. “Yes, let’s go there.” Is this the conversation that pertains in the planning meetings for Michael Winterbottom’s now extensive series starring two comedians going on a trip?

Whatever prompts their choices or governs their schedule (and of course they won’t be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future), this series has gathered some loyal fans.

Once again, we have Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves and bantering and bumbling along in enviable locations. They have the grace not to play themselves as too perfect, but this too is becoming part of the shtick. Steve is a bit vain and self-aggrandising (but he has shown a broader range as an actor and screen writer in real life than Brydon), but prone to flirting and taking offence at imagined slights. Rob is more the family man; more stable perhaps, and his job is to gently needle his friend. This time there is a major drama for one of them but somehow the gravity of this can’t be treated too head on for fear of spoiling the whole concoction.

Both of the performers are killer mimics, of course, and the greatest pleasures here, as in the others, is when they riff on a theme or a celebrity and do whole conversations in character. Some of the voices they adopt would be better known to English audiences perhaps (Brydon’s version of playwright Alan Bennett is eerily perfect) but the ideas of the impromptu sketches are always funny in their own terms.

This time, there is a running gag that they are following in Odysseus’s footsteps and so there is room to do a kind of Horrible Histories piss take on mythical heroes’ travails. But this never really had much legs. Also, usually there is more concentration upon the food which is traditionally a mix of gourmet restaurants and perfect local eateries. This time, we scarcely catch the waiter’s description of the little plated marvels. An obligatory foreign waitress provides some opportunities for self-conscious flirtation.

It doesn’t seem to matter in one way, as it was never really about the food any more than it was about the views or the travel details. Then what IS it about? Well, that is both the mystery and the problem. The chemistry between them made it easy watching, and the banter often contained absolute gems. They have still got some of that, of course, and diehard fans will get something out of this repast.

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In May 1968, when this true story begins, the American actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) was about as big and acclaimed as it gets in France – to where she’d relocated – and famous enough back in the States. She was also committed to helping facilitate social change, and distinctly left-wing.

At the outset, Seberg temporarily leaves Paris – and her husband – to audition for Paint Your Wagon. En route, she meets black activist Hakim Jama (Anthony Mackie), with whom she has a fling in LA and who she assists financially and otherwise. As Jama wryly but accurately observes, “We have to wave a gun to get attention. You get your hair cut and you’re on the cover of Life Magazine.” Seberg is also seen publicly demonstrating her support for the Black Panther Party. This is not, needless to say, a stance calculated to endear her to the FBI – who set about a sustained campaign of bugging and other surveillance, intrusion, manipulation, dirty tricks and (in Seberg’s own accurate one-word summation) “persecution”. Seberg is brave and resolute, but – as you would – she becomes increasingly affected and distressed by this nightmarish ongoing experience.

Hollywood doesn’t have an especially impressive track record when it comes to dealing with this kind of subject matter. So, it’s something of a pleasant surprise to report that Seberg is intelligently scripted and keeps relatively – if not rigorously – close to the facts. It’s also quite engrossing, and Kirsten Stewart is excellent in a demanding role.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon

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Disability is a tricky subject to tackle in any regard, even more so in the realms of fiction. The long-running cliché of abled-actors-taking-on-disabled-roles-almost-guaranteed-industry-award-winners is a cliché for a reason, epitomising the still-recurring treatment of those with a disability in the popular consciousness.

For the longest time, characters with disability populated middle-of-the-road weepies that, rather than try and speak truth to the experience and what it’s like to live within it, exist primarily to give abled audiences an open chance for cheap ‘inspiration’, a moment to reconsider their own lives through the most voyeuristic lens there is.

There will always be some that break away from the pack, though. Mary And Max would be one. Last year’s Kairos is another. And this film joins that shortlist.

Written around the filmmakers’ own relationship with budding actor Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is as much southern-fried contemplation as it is reworking of classic American fiction. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’ script plays around with age-old Mark Twainian tropes, making for a remarkable recontextualisation.

Gottsagen’s aspiring wrestler captures the pure innocence of Huck, while Shia LaBeouf takes time away from multimedia plagiarism and existence as a living meme to give a surprisingly strong performance as a loner fisherman, whose quick-thinking echoes Tom Sawyer’s street-smarts.

And along with adept performances from Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and even rapper Yelawolf in the supporting cast, the main trio is closed out with Dakota Johnson as Zack’s carer, the Widow Douglas of the story, whose concern comes not from piety but from being part of the abled consensus.

Of course, this being one-to-one allegory would’ve been too easy, and the film’s reworking of the classic tale of vagabonds and their friction against what can charitably be called ‘civilization’, shows incredibly clarity. It takes the original themes of struggling to fit in with society and refocuses it through Gottsagen and LaBeouf characters, showing how the lives of the disabled and the wage slaves represent a sizeable amount of modern-day alienation.

In LaBeouf’s Tyler, the struggle to work and live can be sabotaged by those who think a shared suffering is reason enough to continue inflicting it on others, as shown through John Hawkes’ Duncan. And in Zack, it’s how even the most well-meaning of people can still be part of the same system that demeans and ultimate infantilises the disabled.

Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor may refrain from using the word ‘retard’, but that doesn’t make her any less guilty of holding Zack back as much as those who use it in earnest, an unfortunately common notion that rarely gets brought up in the larger conversation.

It’s a parable on the outsider, with a lot of healthy rumination of disability in the mix, but like the best efforts, it doesn’t make a big show of ‘daring to talk about it’. The Peanut Butter Falcon appeals for empathy and the humanity that exists in all, regardless of health, wealth or racial label, and rather than just telling everyone it’s doing so, it makes a greater impact by showing it.